Poultry farming is a popular method of food production that depends on the suffering of millions of animals every year. In order to maximize profit, the poultry farming industry has caused birds to grow at alarming rates that impact their welfare in the process; it has starved birds in order to combat the unnatural growth for which they were bred; and it has force-fed birds in order to engorge their liver so that fine diners can enjoy a particularly cruel delicacy.
What Is Poultry Farming?
Poultry farming is the raising of certain species of birds for the purpose of human use. The industry is filled with animal suffering at every stage from the hatching of chicks to their slaughter.
What Are the Four Types of Poultry?
There are four different types of birds that are commonly classified as poultry.
Chickens are the bird that is most commonly associated with poultry farming. This is likely due to the sheer number of chickens raised globally for consumption. Chickens make up 95 percent of farmed poultry. There are two different classes of chicken that can be raised in the poultry farming industry: broiler chickens and laying hens.
These chickens are raised to be slaughtered and eaten. Some of the most popular breeds of broiler chickens grow so quickly that they reach an average slaughter weight of 6.2 pounds in just a matter of weeks. During the 1950s chickens were not slaughtered until a week later and weighed on average only 2.2 pounds. This vast disparity in growth is because of breeding that selects for growth rate and size at the expense of welfare.
Laying hens are those that are raised to produce eggs. These hens often spend their lives in cages barely larger than they are. During their short life of 72 weeks, birds lay upwards of 320 eggs. This is despite their ability to live much longer productive lives of roughly four years if left to lay at a slower, more natural rate.
Chickens have surprised scientists with their high levels of intelligence. They have been found to be curious and manipulative, to learn quickly, and can even do basic arithmetic. Further, chickens have unique personalities with some even purring from contentment when they are being petted by a person that they trust.
Every year almost 630 million turkeys are raised for consumption globally. Of these approximately 240 million are raised in the United States and another 240 million in the European Union. Modern birds grow astonishingly quickly and can reach a weight of over 20 kgs (44 pounds) by their slaughter, typically between 9 and 24 weeks of age. Like chickens, turkeys are smart animals that are capable of forming tight bonds with members of their flock and with other animals, including humans. When a turkey goes missing from the flock the other members of the group have been known to make sounds of distress until the lost bird has been found.
Ducks and Geese
Ducks and geese are both waterfowl (they are capable swimmers and have webbed feet). Though they are often mistaken for each other, but the key difference is that ducks have fewer bones in their necks than geese. Ducks also tend to have shorter necks.
Ducks are considered an “easy” animal to raise due to their docile nature. This coupled with the fact that duck eggs and meat are relatively expensive to purchase at grocery stores means that these birds are an ideal candidate for poultry farming operations to raise if they are willing to sacrifice the animals’ welfare. One of the most profitable ways to raise a duck is to keep him in a small pen that barely allows for movement and force-feed him until his liver is engorged. This allows for the liver to be marketed as foie gras and sold for upwards of $50 a pound.
Like ducks, geese are often raised for foie gras. This process often results in terrible physical consequences for the birds including lacerated tracheas from having tubes shoved down their throats for force-feeding. The species of goose most frequently used for foie gras is the Toulouse goose, known for its docility and trusting personality. When not confined to poultry farming operations, geese will mate for life and be very protective parents and partners.
Guinea Fowl and Squabs
Guinea fowl and squabs are less frequently farmed than chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese.
Guinea fowl popularity has been increasing in certain geographic areas. The Ministry of Agriculture in Botswana encouraged an increase in guinea fowl rearing among young farmers because the birds’ are easier to raise than chickens and other species common in the poultry farming industry. Guinea fowl are also frequently used as alert animals as they are known to alarm at the smallest irregularities.
Squabs are baby pigeons. In the U.S., they are principally raised in California and South Carolina. Squabs weigh about one pound at the time of slaughter which is typically at or before four weeks of age. If left to live out their lives naturally, pigeons live around six years. Pigeons are known to be extraordinarily intelligent and have been found to be as capable at mathematics as monkeys.
What Are the Techniques of Poultry Farming?
Poultry farming techniques—whether for eggs or meat—are fraught with cruelty and suffering.
The methods by which vast numbers of eggs are produced every year entail serious suffering for millions of laying hens.
Because they are not able to lay eggs, male chicks are not needed for the industry. This results in the slaughter of 300 million baby chicks every year in the U.S. alone and more than 6 billion worldwide. These chicks are most commonly either gassed or macerated, meaning crushed. They are not raised and used for meat because their small adult size would not be worth enough to offset the cost of feeding them into adulthood.
Within the first few days of life female chicks have their beaks trimmed. This process involves the removal of the tip of the beak to prevent the birds from pecking at each other. However, the procedure can cause both acute and chronic pain and also has lasting impacts on the birds’ ability to behave naturally.
Laying hens are overwhelmingly housed in cages around the world. On average each hen has less space than an A4 sheet of paper in which to move around, preventing them from even spreading their wings. This lack of space makes a number of natural behaviors impossible, including nesting, perching, and dustbathing.
Two of the dominant forms of suffering experienced by broiler chickens are an abnormally fast growth rate and an inhumane slaughter process that leaves thousands of chickens fully conscious at the time of their death.
Broiler chickens grow at an astonishing 65 grams or more a day in order to reach their slaughter weight of 6.2 pounds in just a matter of weeks. This excessive growth leads to painful consequences for the birds who often are not able to stand or walk normally as their legs struggle to support their ballooning size. The quick rate of growth also contributes to organ problems due to the extra tolls being placed on the young chickens’ hearts and lungs.
The most common method of slaughter for broiler chickens is live shackle slaughter. This method involves hanging chickens upside down in shackles on a mechanized slaughter line running at speeds of up to 175 birds per minute. This leads to many animals being incorrectly hung and consequently having their limbs mangled or losing them altogether. The disassembly line then continues to an electrified water bath that is intended to stun the birds. Yet, many birds are ineffectively stunned or miss the bath completely, meaning that they are fully conscious when their throats are sliced open, surrounded by the frightened sounds of their flock.
Hatcheries are where most chickens begin their lives. Eggs are removed from the mother birds and placed into incubators. PETA found that at a commercial hatchery in India many chicks hatched with deformities, including some with organs outside of their bodies.
Why Is Poultry Farming Bad?
Read on for a quick summary of some of the worst suffering and environmental degradation caused by the poultry farming industry.
Beak trimming entails the removal of the tip of the beak within the first few days of a chick’s life. It is common practice for laying hens. The procedure impacts the bird’s ability to behave naturally and can also cause lifelong pain.
Antibiotics can be used as a means to reduce suffering in chickens. However, their overuse to encourage swift growth and prevent disease contributes to antibiotic resistance which the World Health Organization has characterized as one of the biggest threats to public health.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a statement recently sharing findings that the livers of birds that had been treated with roxarsone, an approved animal drug, contained greater levels of inorganic arsenic than birds that had not been treated with the drug. The drug is frequently used to promote growth, kill parasites, and improve the pigmentation of the meat.
The use of growth hormones within the US is illegal. Instead, birds have undergone selective breeding to achieve their massive growth rates.
Birds are kept in very small areas with thousands of other chickens. Coupled with our increasing tendency to ship birds and their products across borders, this increases the risk of disease spread. The conditions in which animals are kept on poultry farming operations provide the ideal place for diseases to flourish and pandemics to start.
A recent study reported that the 1 billion chickens and turkeys raised in the Chesapeake Bay region of the U.S. contribute about 24 million pounds of nitrogen to the bay every year. That’s more than double the amount of nitrogen released by all of Maryland’s sewage and wastewater plants in 2018.
Chicken farmers have a difficult job that can have negative health impacts. The high levels of ammonia in the chicken barns can cause harm to workers’ respiratory health. They also run the risk of being exposed to any diseases that the birds may have. Working on a slaughter line can also cause high levels of mental anguish due to the nature of the job.
The overcrowded sheds common in the poultry farming industry cause high levels of stress in birds and can contribute to trampling and birds pecking at each other. In order to curb this behavior, beak trimming, an equally painful fate, has become commonplace for laying hens.
Laying hens are commonly kept in battery cages with an area so small that it prevents the birds from even spreading their wings.
The genetic manipulation of broiler chickens has led to many being unable to stand or walk normally because their legs are unable to support their large bodies. This leads to many birds with leg deformities, such as having their legs splayed to the sides. The fast growth can also cause heart failure.
Broiler chickens that are kept for breeding purposes are commonly fed only every other day, or fed only a quarter of the food that it would take to satisfy their hunger. They have been bred to consume large amounts of food to support their swift growth, but the breeding birds must be kept leaner than birds meant for slaughter, to avoid the collapse, organ failure, and infertility experienced by the birds intended for human consumption.
Laying hens are biologically inclined to lay eggs more frequently during the longer days of the spring and early summer, to ensure that chicks are raised during the warmest months of the year. However, through light manipulation, poultry farming operations are able to capitalize on this trait and create lighting circumstances that induce the hens to lay year-round at maximum capacity. This takes a toll on the hen’s body, which breaks down after two years or less when she is no longer able to keep up with the farmer’s demands.
How to Stop Poultry Farming Cruelty?
The best way to help stop the suffering of birds in poultry farming is to stop purchasing poultry products. With so many delicious alternatives available there is no reason to support this suffering. Another way to help fight against the cruelty of poultry farming is to get involved with an organization that shares this goal. Some examples are Mercy for Animals, The Humane League, and the Humane Society of the U.S.
The Future of Poultry Farming
The poultry farming industry is filled with animal suffering. Birds are crammed into cages too small to flap their wings, have their beaks trimmed causing lifelong pain, are force-fed, and are slaughtered while conscious. In addition to this terrible suffering, the poultry farming industry has detrimental impacts on the environment due to the high levels of pollution it produces. However, there is still hope; by reducing the amount of chicken, eggs, and other poultry farming products that we consume we can reduce the number of animals that are part of this cruel system.
Grace is an animal advocate with a passion for social justice within the animal protection movement.